Detroit’s Union Problem
And yes, the problem is the United Auto Workers, but this has ramifications beyond the obvious.
It is perhaps the mode of doing business in a unionized company that remains a crippling disadvantage. The UAW is arguably the most successful industrial union of all time. But its very strength has allowed it to permeate into every aspect of manufacturing in the Detroit Three.To anybody who knows anything much about bureaucracy, the analysis rings true. Yes, the unions are greedy and self-serving. And yes, auto executives have been incompetent. But it has been the bureaucratization that has accompanied unionization that has been fatal.
The collective bargaining agreement with the UAW is a heavily negotiated document the size of a small telephone book. It is virtually identical for each of the Detroit Three, owing to “pattern” bargaining, but it doesn’t exist at all in their U.S. competition, the nonunionized transplants. Not only work rules, but fundamental business decisions to sell, close or spin-off plants are forbidden without permission. That permission may come, but only at a price, since everything that affects the workplace must be negotiated.
Both the UAW and the Detroit Three maintain large staffs of lawyers, contract administrators, and financial and human-resources representatives whose principal job is to negotiate with the other side. These staffs are at all levels, from the factory floor to corporate headquarters and the UAW’s “Solidarity House” in downtown Detroit.
The collective bargaining agreements are now renegotiated every four years; in each negotiation the power and penetration of the union grows. If the company asks to change the flow of work for any reason, from cost-savings to vehicle improvements, the local union president will listen politely, and then say something like, “We can help you with this, but what’s in it for my guys?”
Typically, he will have a list of things he wants, some understandable (better cafeterias) some questionable (hire my nephew), but there is always a quid pro quo. These mutually sustaining bureaucracies exist to negotiate with each other.
In an environment of downsizing, the problem is exacerbated, as the entrenched bargaining structure causes innumerable inefficiencies. Typically each plant or warehouse is a “bargaining unit” and has a union president, who has a staff. If the company consolidates facilities, there will be no need for two presidents and two staffs. Since neither president wants to play musical chairs, they will both point to the bargaining agreement and resist consolidation. As a result, unnecessary facilities are not sold, but kept open, lit and heated, just to preserve a redundant bargaining-unit president and his team.